On being a European

Stefan Zweig was an Austrian by birth, a European by instinct and vocation, an author and poet who became the most translated writer in Europe in the 1930s, a Jew, an exile, a refugee, who in spite of two world wars and exile continued to write and travel and argue – until in 1942 he and his wife took their own lives in Brazil.

He championed international cooperation, championed culture and the intellectual life – his aspiration that they might bring Europe together, and triumph over petty nationalisms.

In the World of Yesterday, ‘one of the canonical European testaments’, he tells the story of his life and times from school days to 1939. Curiously in the UK he never achieved the fame he found in Europe.

Maybe that should change.


On Europe…. 

‘It will be decades before that other (trusting) Europe can return to what it was before the First World War…….bitterness and distrust have lurked in the mutilated body of Europe.’

As more became known about Hitler and his ready resort to violence ‘the conscience of Europe’ chose not to take sides, because all violent acts were within Germany…. (my italics)

After the First World War, ‘The orderly German nation did not know what to do with its liberty, and was already looking for someone to take away it away again.’ (Today the guardians of that liberty hold sway, but the threat is always there, from neo-Nazis, and from political parties such as Alternative fur Deutchland.) 

In Austria in 1937, before the Anschluss, few at least publicly made the connections with 1914 – no-one wanted to. Zweig describes vividly a traditional Christmas in Vienna in 1937.

All the while a new power out there, aiming to seize government, ‘regarded all idea we valued as outmoded – peace, humanity, reconciliation…’

He compares the English with Austria, Germany, or France – they lived more quietly, more content, thought more about their gardens.

(We lose so much if we deny ourselves that European focus – if we imagine the values we hold sacred are specially English, or British. Reading Zweig reminds us what it was like living through that remarkable period from 1900 to 1940. We are part of Europe, our outlook and culture – and origins. The rest of the world sees us as European – we are foolish to think otherwise. )

On government – and the people …

In the run up to 1939 (and too often true today): ‘ … 10 or 20 people (in Downing Street, the Quai d’Orsay…), few of whom had ever shown any evidence of any particular intelligence or skill were talking and telephoning and coming to agreements which the rest of us knew nothing about.’

Zweig ‘knew that the vast majority always go to whichever side holds the balance of power at any given moment.’

On armchair revolutionaries… 

Zurich in 1916 – the Zurich of Dada – Zweig had never met such an impassioned and varied mixture of people and opinions. Since his death Zweig’s been accused of being a coward for not coming out more strongly against the war. His comment about ‘coffee house conspirators’ gives the answer – his disdain for ‘professional revolutionaries raised from personal insignificance merely by adopting a stance of opposition’.

(There were many such – and there were as I well recall in the 1970s when I was a trade unionist –Father of Chapel of the Penguin Books NUJ chapel, and they are still very much out there today – and will be in every generation. )

On the arts… 

The poet Rilke, a friend of Zweig’s – ‘Can there ever be such pure poets again…all they wanted was to link verse to verse perfectly in quiet yet passionate endeavour, every line singing with music…. can that kind of poetry exist in our new way of life… which chases out peace of mind like a forest fire?’

On being a refugee, in England…. 

‘I, the former cosmopolitan, keep feeling as if I had to offer special thanks for every breath of air that I take in a foreign country, thus depriving its own people of its benefit…’ Zweig had ‘trained his heart to beat as a citizen of the world for 50 years… On the day I lost my Austrian passport I discovered, at the age of 58, that when you lose your native land you are losing more than a patch of territory set within borders.’

On being Jewish….  

Jews used to have ‘an inviolable faith in their God’. But they were many peoples, multiple languages, now thrown together – what did they have in common? And they asked – ‘what is the reason for this pointless persecution.’

The questions asked by Job.  [‘Why did I not perish at birth, an die as I came from the womb?’  (3:11). ‘What strength do I have, that I should still hope? What prospects, that I should be patient?’ (6:11)]

After the Anschluss – his elderly mother enjoyed walking – but now ‘no Jew must sit on any public bench’. She no longer had a place to rest. And that was almost the least of the strictures which took down and took apart Jewish life in the city.

And at the last….

A confession- ‘I do not mourn for what I have lost – the art of saying goodbye to everything that was once our pride and joy..’

And yet – ‘But in the end every shadow is also the child of light, and only those who have known the light and the dark, have seen war and peace, rise and fall, have truly lived their lives.’


Zweig has many lessons for us, as a European, a Jew, a citizen of the world, a man of culture and intellect, with many flaws as have all of us – but just maybe someone to champion in our own times, when uncertainties are greater, and crises seem – and are – closer to hand, when there’s a sense that the post-war consensus might just break apart, and we need reminders, we need a champion or two.

Final thoughts …

Final thoughts on the EU. Unless provoked!

A friend sent me the link to the Brexit movie, which I mentioned two posts ago.  I viewed and responded to her as follows:

“I’m proud to be a liberally-minded outward-looking Englishman, European, citizen of the world. Any film or message that begins with ‘we the people’ is automatically suspect. Pretending to refer back to the American constitution, but sounding more like Oswald Mosley in the 1930s.

There’s much wrong with the EU. There’s bound to be with any institution which brings together 26 nations. But the important thing is that it’s brought them together. We live in peace, amazingly. After fighting each other pretty much forever. We trade successfully, and we can only lose by leaving. The Leave story here is a disgraceful misrepresentation. Fully-argued surveys on one side against rose-tinted speculation on the other. Which do we go for? And trade means regulations and standards – we will need them anyway if we want to trade with Europe. And on the environmental side, and that includes animal welfare, I’m delighted to see that our standards have been taken up by the EU, and that means countries with much poorer standards than ours.

Listen on iPlayer to Paddy Ashdown  on Any Questions last Friday [13th May] taking apart Liam Fox when Fox tried to dismiss all the world institutions – the IMF, OECD etc – that argue for the UK staying in the EU as somehow biased or self-serving or in the EU’s pay. Only by traducing the integrity of these institutions (and none have come out favouring Brexit) can the Leave campaign make a case for themselves – and it’s profoundly to their discredit that they try. Likewise Mark Carney and the Bank of England – should he not issue warnings when warnings are what his role as Governor requires of him?

I walked the Camino across northern Spain with fellow Europeans last autumn. Not with the Brexit-minded. But with people mainly younger, mainly much younger than myself. They are the future. There’s a spirit of optimism, of sharing.

Sovereignty – that’s how the film begins. Sovereignty is worthless unless you work with others, and that means sharing some of that sovereignty. The EU is what we make of it – and we have one of the dominant voices there.

Immigration – on the plus side, an incontrovertible net benefit to the economy, on the debit side, pressure on resources and in some cases, jobs. How we control immigration (and still get the benefits) should be the issue, not how we oppose it.

Do we really want to turn the world against us?

Boris’s comments about the EU wanting a European superstate as Hitler did are disgraceful. We are the EU. The EU doesn’t have a separate existence. Linking it to Hitler is atrocious history, and populism of the worst kind.

Someone somewhere said he hoped the film would enlighten and entertain. It does the opposite.”



No more on Brexit?

Well, almost.

Time I think to bow out of talking about Brexit in this blog. It’s taking me down paths I don’t want to go. It’s so easy to be intemperate, and that’s no surprise, and indeed inevitable, given the importance of the issues involved. Recent specifics:

We’ve had the Tory MP Steve Baker laying into the Remain campaign for its petty smears, which is a bit rich giving the diet of outrageously misleading reports we get from the Eurosceptic press.

There’s Ian Duncan Smith on Michael Heseltine: ‘a voice from the past’ in response to Heseltine’s comment that Boris’s ‘judgement is going’ – not ‘going’ but transparently ‘gone’.

And Chris Grayling refusing was it nine times to give a straight answer on whether or not he supported Boris Johnson’s comments equating the EU’s ambitions with Hitler’s.

And at an institutional rather than personal level we have the right-wing Eurosceptic press.

Ownership concentrated primarily in the hands of ‘press barons’ is a serious issue for any democracy which aspires to be a mature and stable entity. Freedom of the press and oligarchical control are not compatible.

There’s an excellent outfit called InFacts that takes the Eurosceptic press to task for its persistent and egregiously wrong or radically misleading reporting. It’s well worth reading.

They, and we, have to hang in there.  

And if we leave?

If you prefer me writing country notes, or you’re American, and you’re not too interested in British or European politics, do give this post a miss! Though there are a good few parallels with Trumpery.

Also, if you’re expecting me to be mild-mannered, and avoid personalities, well, not this time. There is some pretty egregiously bad behaviour out there.

If you read the press and indeed listen to the BBC news you can get depressed, even feel beleaguered if you support staying in the EU. Michael Heseltine’s demolition of Boris Johnson yesterday, primarily over his linking the EU and Hitler’s ambitions, was featured in the Times, but not in the popular press. Heseltine would be ‘very surprised’ if Boris ever became the leader of the party, and that of course is an implicit part of the Brexit agenda. (How left-of-centre Brexit supporters can justify to themselves facilitating a Boris premiership I don’t know.) So however absurd Boris gets, he remains untouchable – and he is of course aware of that.

I don’t believe for a moment that Michael Gove shares Boris’s view of European history. I wonder (to myself only so far!) whether he might just change sides at the last. He is already tainted by association.

I also wonder what will happen if Boris does, after a Cameron resignation, become PM. Would all his party fall into line? I somehow doubt it – the party is badly split.(Just how far will all this mutual abuse extend?)  So he wouldn’t of course command a majority in the Commons, and in the event of an election there’s a very good chance that a pro-EU parliament would be returned. Would the Tories be able to campaign as a single party? If they did and they’re returned as the largest party, but well short of a majority, would they then still try and force through Leave legislation?

Another scenario: Nigel Farage asserts that, if the result is small Stay majority, there will be a clamour for a second referendum. I haven’t heard it from the Stay campaign yet, and I guess they’re too wise to make the comment – but if the result is a small majority for Leave, I expect there will also be a big clamour for … a second referendum.

Oh the joys of uncertainty and chaos!

If we weren’t all so deeply involved, if a potential Brexit hadn’t got calamity written all over it, these would be fascinating times. They will make good history ….